5 things I’ve learnt to improve my online live lessons

In NSW, Australia, NSW public schools moved to a ‘learning from home’ model on 24 May 2020, due to increased restrictions to combat COVID-19. Parents were asked to keep their children at home if they could learn from home Overnight, we moved from face to face teaching to online remote teaching and learning. Like many other teachers, I started to experiment with using online meetings. This is what I have found to be useful.

1. Play around with different tools

I tested Adobe Connect, Microsoft Teams and Zoom for online live lessons with my classes. Overall, I prefer to use Zoom with my students for the following reasons:

  • Many of them already use it with family and friends.
  • Many of their parents use it so they know how to help if required.
  • It has breakout rooms that is easy to set up and use (more on this later).
  • It generates a meeting link that you can use over and over. I have this link as the top post on Google Classroom so it is easy to find for students. See here for instructions on how to create a link for recurring meetings.

For staff teams, I prefer Microsoft Teams for online meetings as it offers a more efficient experience. Microsoft Teams is the easiest to run an online meeting when you have everyone you need in your Team. You literally just click a button and voila! I like how Microsoft Teams allows for staff teams to be broken into smaller teams through Channels (Eg. Our Year 7 Middle School team has a main Microsoft Team and then the STEM teachers and Humanities teachers have their own Channels. If you run a science faculty for example, you can have all of your teachers in the main Channel and then break off smaller teams of teachers into their own Channels like a separate Channel for each Year 11/12 subject.) In those channels, teachers can easily run their own online meetings.

You can also collectively take notes while you have an online meeting in Microsoft Teams. We ran an executive meeting on Teams and notes were taken live during the meeting. Everyone can see the minutes being entered.

You can also schedule online meetings in Microsoft Teams, but it’s trickier than Zoom if you work in a NSW public school. The video below shows how to do it. It’s important to let colleagues know who is starting the live meeting. Otherwise you may have enthusiastic teachers going into Teams early and then starting the meeting and end up two different meetings happening simultaneously.

After a few weeks of testing, it’s important to discuss a whole school approach to online meetings and come to a consensus on which online meeting tool to use with students. This is particularly important in high school where a student can have up to 8 different teachers and it will be challenging for them to use a different online meeting tool for each teacher.

2. Keep online live lessons short

I like to keep online live lessons at around 20 to 30 minutes. Our school periods are 50 minutes and that is way too long in an online lesson environment. Think about the purpose of the online live lesson. If it’s to explicitly explain a concept (eg. how to add fractions with different denominators), then it is better to record a video rather than a live meeting. I like to use live meetings for welfare check-in’s, collaborative discussions and feedback; basically things that cannot be done effectively with a recorded video on online posts.

3. Use breakout rooms

I like to use breakout rooms in Zoom for students to have small group discussions (about 3 to 4 students). Breakout rooms are where you can send students into their own online meeting spaces and you as the teacher can ‘drop in’ and monitor each one. It’s the online version of separating students into smaller groups in a classroom and the teacher walking around. Students have more opportunities to actively participate in an online discussion and some are more willing to when they are in smaller groups. You can randomly assign students to breakout rooms or choose your own student groups.

Breakout rooms can also be done in Microsoft Teams.

4. Give students something to do while they are waiting

In a regular face to face classroom, I start every class with a quick quiz. This is for several reasons:

  • Retrieval practice – The questions I set requires them to remember content they have learnt in previous lessons, which helps them to consolidate the information into their long term memory.
  • Classroom management – As soon as students walk in, they have something to do. They have to unpack their equipment and they have to engage with the course work straight away. It allows me to manage students coming into the classroom at different times. Some may be coming from the classroom next door and others are walking from the other end of the school. The quick quiz mean I have a five minute window of ensuring everyone is on task and attentive. It’s a good crowd control strategy. I can also mark the roll.

An online live lesson is very similar to a face to face class. Some students will log on before you do. Others will log on a few seconds after you. And others will log in minutes later. I like to use the Polls feature in Zoom for retrieval practice. I usually do 3 to 5 multiple choice questions for them to do in Polls while I allow students into the meeting from the lobby.

I also like to use the Whiteboard feature to tell them they need to be answering the questions in Polls, list the meeting’s agenda, learning goals, etc.

5. Set and practise routines

An online live class needs to have learning routines and they need to be explicitly taught, just like in a face to face classroom. I like to start my online live classes the same way every time – the quick quiz in Polls and use the Whiteboard to communicate what we are doing in this online class (and tick them off as we go). Students know they have to use the hands up features to ask a question and they know when and why to use the chat. Some teachers like to disable the chat, but I like it. Yes, my students have used it to talk about irrelevant things, but 99% of the time they use the chat to help each other and alert me to technical issues (like the YouTube clip I’m trying to share is glitchy).

Overall, my students really value live online classes. I think they value the connection with each other and with their teachers. As we move into Term 2 where they may be a continuation with remote teaching or some sort, I would like my students to lead the online live lessons more. Have them share their screens and show their work or use breakout rooms where there is a student leader to facilitate the discussions.

Using knowledge organisers to support retrieval practice

Last year I started prototyping with teaching and learning strategies based on cognitive science. I was particularly interested in how to design and structure learning to support students to consolidate knowledge and skills into long term memory. Some of the things I did were:

This year I want to prototype knowledge organisers. A knowledge organiser is an A4 template that succinctly shows the reader (student/parent/teacher) what is essential to know for a particular topic. Knowledge organsers are not new. I’ve seen them on UK EduTwitter for a number of years but I think they are not that widely used in Australia. For a really good post on knowledge organisers, see Joe Kirby’s blog on how knowledge organisers are used at Michaela Community School.

For me I’m trialling knowledge organisers with my Year 7 maths/science class. I’ve made these knowledge organsiers so far for the introduction to high school science topic.

An image of a knowledge organiser for scientific processes
An image of a knowledge organiser for working safetly in the lab
An image of a knowledge organiser for laboratory equipment

This is how I’m going to use them:

  • Students to use the look cover check correct process to learn one section of the knowledge organiser at a time. Students choose one section of a knowledge organiser to focus on, read the information, cover that section, write what they remember, check their retrieved version with the knowledge organiser and then correct it with a different coloured pen. This will first be done in class and then moved to homework tasks. Students will receive a copy of the knowledge organisers in their homework folders so that their parents/carers know what they are learning at a glance and can use them to quiz their children.
  • Use the knowledge organiser to develop low-stakes quizzes. Students can also use the knowledge organiser to quiz each other.
  • Once students have practised using knowledge organisers in a range of ways and have these routines automated, retrieval practice using knowledge organisers can become the class work students do when the regular teacher is absent.

I make the knowledge organisers in PowerPoint. Click on this link to download the PowerPoint files and make a copy if you’d like to edit the knowledge organisers to suit your needs and the needs of your students.

Using escape rooms to launch the new school year

The new school year is about to start in Australia. This year my school is starting a new middle school initiative where Year 7 science, maths and some aspects of geography will be integrated and taught by the one teacher. And I am lucky to be one of these teachers. Since almost three subjects will be combined and taught by the one teacher, I will see my Year 7 class A LOT for a typical high school teacher. I’ve done this type of middle school/integrated curriculum before at my previous school and I always kick off the year with a project that allows each student learns about learning. This year the driving question for our first project will be ‘How can I learn effectively and achieve my personal best in maths and science?’

So I wanted a hook activity to launch the year and this project. It needs to be an activity that captures the excitement of the project (and the year’s learning) and allows me to see their existing group work skills. I played around with some ideas and thought an escape room will be good.

I have thought about escape rooms before but they seem to take a mammoth effort to create. But I thought I’d give it a go. I used the general guidelines from Bespoke ELA’s blog and was inspired by her use of Super Mario as the background story (Super Mario is one of my favourite video games series). I am using the introduction to Super Mario 3D as the background story for the escape room. If you haven’t got the time to view the video, the gist of the story is that Bowser has captured seven Sprixies (fairy-like creatures) and each time Super Mario and his pals complete a world, they rescue a Sprixie. For my escape room, a world will be a challenge and each time students complete a challenge, they rescue a Sprixie.

I also followed Bespoke ELA’s instructions on using Google Forms to create a digital escape room, using the section and validation features in Google Forms for students to enter codes to unlock rooms.

Screenshot of the introduction on Google Forms for my escape room activity. It features an embedded YouTube video for the introduction of Super Mario 3D to provide students with the background story.
The video for the background story for this escape room activity is embedded as YouTube video at the start of the Google Form.
Screenshot of a section of the escape room in Google Forms.
Students solve seven challenges. Each time they solve a challenge, they reveal a code to enter into the Google Form. The validation feature is used to check if the code they have entered is correct. If the code is correct, they proceed to the next room (next Google Form section).
Image showing a red Sprixie being rescued.
When students enter the correct code, they unlock a challenge and rescue on of the sprixies.

Students gain the code for each challenge by completing questions in small groups. The images below show each challenge. Challenge 1 was inspired by an activity in Stile, which currently has two online escape room activities. They are definitely worth checking out if you’re interested to see what other educational escape rooms can look like. I used Discovery Education Puzzlemaker to create some of the challenges.

Image showing challenge 1
Image showing challenge 2
Image showing challenge 3
Image showing challenge 4
Image showing challenge 5
Image showing challenge 6
Image showing challenge 7

All of the challenges are designed to be quite basic for this particular escape room as the purpose is to see how a group of new Year 7 students work together after knowing each other for a few days. However, escape rooms can be used as retrieval practice activities. I am planning to use this same escape room structure for my Year 12 classes, but have sample and past HSC exam questions in the challenges.

Have you created or used escape rooms before? How did you find them?

3 drama games that all teachers can use

In NSW, Australia, teachers, children and young people are getting ready for another year of school. Like many teachers, I like to kick off the year with some ice breaker and team building games. I like to think of my classes as learning communities and for my students to learn how to effectively work with each other, they need to know each other (I’m a science and STEM teacher so many activities involve group work and group projects).

A few years ago, I did team teaching with a drama and dance teacher and was amazed at how well her classes worked together, in a level I have not experienced my science classroom. In these drama and dance classes, students worked productively together. They weren’t afraid to make mistakes in front of each other. They knew how to support each other. They were attuned to each other. I initially thought maybe these classes were just composed of students who were already good friends which is why the group dynamics were so good. But the drama/dance teacher assured me A LOT of work goes into building group dynamics. So I’ve been looking into drama games that would work well in non-drama classes as ALL classes would benefit from developing from students who work well with each other, who empathise with each other, who trust each other and respect each other.

Catch my name – This game helps the class learn each other’s names. Students sit in a circle and a soft object like a small bean bag is thrown to students. The thrower says their name and throws it to another student who says their name when they catch it and throw it to the next student. In subsequent rounds students will need to say their own name and the student’s name they throw the object to. I found this game on Drama Toolkit, where a more detailed description of the game can be found.

Group walks – These are activities that build students’ physical awareness. While such drama games are targeted at developing actors’ awareness of each other’s physical presence on stage, it can also be beneficial for non-drama classes. Being taught to be physically aware of each other’s presence can help students work and learn effectively in large spaces like science labs or open learning spaces. A simple version of this game is to have students walk around in a large space slowly doing various movements like hopping and they need to make sure they don’t bump into each other. Variations and progressions of this game can be found in this blog post.

Count to 20 – I really like this game. As a class, students have to start counting from 1 to 20. Only one student can speak at a time. Any student can start counting and any student can continue the following numbers. However, there is no verbal coordination of who speaks first or next. If two or more students end up saying a number then the class starts from 1 again. See here for a detailed description of the game.

I really like how these games intentionally teach students to work productively as a team. Almost all teachers and all subjects require students to work effectively as a class. These games can be one way of deliberately teaching these skills.

Using Ozobots in the science classroom

I’ve been interested in using Ozobots in my science lessons ever since I saw this tweet of Ozobots being used to model different types of eclipses.

I really liked how the Ozobots were being used to create a moving model of eclipses, which is quite difficult to do without coded robots that automatically move (I have never found children holding basketballs and moving around another child holding a torch work well).

This term our school got hold of some Ozobots through the STEMShare initiative and I was able to test out how Ozobots can be used to enhance students’ understanding of the nitrogen cycle. Matter cycles through ecosystems, particularly the nitrogen cycle, can be quite difficult to conceptualise. Common activities include showing students diagrams of the nitrogen cycle, videos and getting students to physically model the cycle by pretending to be nitrogen particles themselves. However, just like eclipses, Ozobots provide an opportunity for students to create an annotated moving model to better visualise the processes.

So last Friday, my Year 9s used Ozobots to create a narrated video explanation of the nitrogen cycle with the Ozobot acting as a nitrogen particle. Here’s one of the videos.

The videos were created in an 80 minute lesson. What I really liked about using the  Ozobots was that it gave students the opportunity to work in teams and talk to each other about the nitrogen cycle. They worked in teams of 2 to 3 students draw the map, negotiate the narration and film the video. The activity gave them an opportunity to test and clarify their understanding of the nitrogen cycle with each other. The activity allowed students to determine if they really understand the nitrogen cycle. Prior to this, we had already done many other activities of the nitrogen cycle (worksheets, question and answer sessions, quizzes) and many students were confident they understood the nitrogen cycle. However, when it came to creating the narrated video with the Ozobots, many found that they didn’t know the nitrogen cycle as well as they thought they did.

Next time, I would also ask students to create a map so that the Ozobot wouldn’t be travelling in a nice unidirectional cycle but back-and-forth through different components of the ecosystem.

Routines to kick off a lesson

I’m big on learning routines. I’m a strong believer that predictable lessons that follow a similar structure every time allows students to learn more effectively. I started at a new school last term and learning routines have been particularly important in establishing my expectations with my students.

I always start the lesson in the same way. Every lesson kicks off with a “Quick Quiz”. For most of my classes, the Quick Quiz involves me writing three to four sentences on the board with missing words (key vocabulary or concepts for the topic). These sentences are based on the concepts of the previous lessons or topics. The Quick Quiz is always on the board before students enter the classroom. As soon as they enter the room, they have to copy and complete the quiz. The quiz takes about 5 minutes to complete. I’ve been doing the Quick Quiz in 3 different schools now and have found it to be effective. I really like the Quick Quiz routine because:

  • Students are regularly revising the key concepts.
  • It’s a great settling routine. It encourages students to take out their equipment immediately as they enter the classroom.
  • It gives me sufficient time to do administrative tasks like mark the roll, check uniforms, lend pens to students who need them and settle students who need additional assistance.
  • It’s accessible to all students. If they don’t know the missing words, they can still copy the sentences. I also encourage them look back in their books to search for the answer if they don’t know.
  • It’s a form of formative assessment. I end the Quick Quiz by randomly selecting students to provide their answers (I have a no hands up rule for answering questions and use the Randomly app to select students to answer). It lets me gauge how well they have remembered the key concepts from previous lessons.
  • I have had to adjust the Quick Quiz routine at my new school for my Year 9 class who told me they found the filling in missing words too easy. The limitations of using a cloze passage style quiz is that it mainly allows revision of key terms and concepts based on recall. So I’ve changed the Quick Quiz for Year 9 to be on a worksheet with a combination of multiple choice questions, cloze passages and open ended questions. I place the worksheets near the door so as the enter the classroom, they take a worksheet and complete it. I still use the Randomly app to randomly select students to give the answer to each question. So far the Year 9s have said they prefer the worksheet version of the Quick Quiz.
  • This version of the Quick Quiz requires more effort and preparation from me and I don’t think I’d be able to do this for all of my classes on a long term basis. But so far it has worked really well for Year 9s.
  • How do you start your lessons? Do you have lesson starter routines that you find particularly effective?
  • Using exams as formative assessment

    Exams are often seen as summative assessment. From my experience, students often seen exams as high stakes and only want to know their grade. The most common question students ask me when they get their exams back is “Did I pass?”. Most of them don’t seem to be interested in using exams as a way to know where they are at and how they can improve. So I wanted to do something different to encourage my students to see exams as one way of them knowing how they are progressing and a window into what they should do to improve. I also wanted them to use exams as an opportunity to reflect on their revision strategies.

    I stumbled across exam wrappers and decided to implement it with my Year 9s. My Year 9s just finished their half yearly exams. When I returned their papers, I also got them to use an exam wrapper and a Dedicated Reflection and Improvement Time process to facilitate the processing of feedback and self reflection. Overall, this strategy was very well received by students. Many of them were able to identify the syllabus components they need to focus on and revision strategies to try next time. It also gave me, as their teacher, an insight into how they studied and how I can explicit teach revision strategies to them.

    Here’s what my exam wrapper and DIRT feedback looked like with links to editable versions of both documents.

    exam wrapper

    DIRT feedback

    Links to editable file

    STEM in Australia – some teachers’ perspectives of STEM education


    Last Sunday I had the privilege of hosting the weekly #aussieED chat on Twitter. The focus was on STEM. I wanted to dig deep into what Australian teachers thought on STEM education.
    For those who don’t know, STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and maths. A focus on STEM isn’t new and has been a focus on-and-off since the 1980s.However in the past 5 years, there has been a large focus on STEM in primary, secondary and tertiary education as well as being emphasised in government policies. So for the #aussieED chat I wanted to find out what teachers felt was happening with STEM education in their schools. These are some of the themes:

     1. STEM education has come a long way and still has a long way to go.

    Some teachers indicated that their schools have implemented STEM as cross-curricular project based learning experiences and have moved from a few innovators and early adopters trailing STEM programs to whole school approaches. These schools are now supporting other schools who are starting their STEM journeys. A good example of this is the STEM Action Schools project in NSW public schools. It will be interesting to see how different schools and teachers evolve their STEM teaching approaches as they gain more experience and reflect upon them.

    2. STEM education needs more than passionate teachers; it needs enabling conditions.

    Many teachers agreed that STEM is a way of teaching; a way of teaching that involves the integration of traditional subjects with a real-world context and driven by real-life solutions. This approach is enabled and sustained when structural systems like timetables, flexible learning spaces and a school culture that encourages teachers to take risks with different teaching approaches are in place. Otherwise it can become isolated pockets of excellence in STEM education, accessible to some students only. Some teachers mentioned dedicated time in timetables to work as a team so authentic cross-curricular collaboration can be created and sustained. Other teachers mentioned time to explore practical resources, opportunities to team teach with exemplary STEM teachers and time to reflect, evaluate and improve in their own practice.

    3. How can educators and systems ensure promising practices in STEM are scaled and make an impact?

    Is STEM an educational fad? Do we even need STEM to be an integrated, cross-curricular approach? Should we focus on teaching science, technology and maths separately but make sure we teach it well? What are the goals of STEM education? Is it just purely to make students “future job ready”? Is it to create scientifically and digitally literate citizens? Does everyone need to learn coding? How do we measure the impact of STEM? What is an appropriate timeframe to expect impact? These were some of the issues raised throughout the #aussieED chat. We didn’t come up with answers as they are highly complex issues that can be highly dependent on context. Personally I think STEM education is vital to the future of students on a personal, societal and economic level. To make STEM education a sustainable practice, that is day-to-day teaching practice, the enabling conditions of quality STEM education needs to be in place. We also need to be clear on the purpose of STEM education for our students. Otherwise it can easily become a fad.

    What are your thoughts and experiences of STEM education? 

    Steps to HSC Success #MTM2016

    success

    This blog post is a collection of tweets from the 2016 Meet the Markers. The event had the Twitter hashtag of #MTM2016. I wanted to do a Storify but Storify isn’t working so hence this blog post. MTM2016 is a teacher professional learning event where teachers learn how HSC science exams are marked and how to teach students to maximise their HSC achievement

    I wasn’t personally at MTM2016 due to a school event, but was able to learn from it via Twitter. The power of social media.

    Learning with real scientists

    Earlier this year, I wrote a post on my goals for 2014. My goal #1 was  to keep science real by connecting my students with real scientists. We regularly hear that STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) will be essential to our economic future and hence it is vital to engage all of our students in STEM. However, there are many statistics that our students are switched off from STEM. From surveys in my own school, many students say they do not want to pursue post-compulsory studies of science because they don’t know what kind of careers science will lead them to. Ask any student what a scientist does and they will most likely give a very narrow, stereotypical view. Like I said in my previous post, most students will know an accountant, a plumber, a builder, a lawyer, but they are very unlikely to know a scientist.

    So for the past year I have gotten my school in a program run by the CSIRO called Scientists and Mathematicians in Schools (SMIS). SMIS pairs a school with a practising scientist (or mathematician) who will work with students, teachers and schools on a range of activities from talks about science as a career to running lessons on specific content. My school’s partner scientist is Dr Melina Georgousakis, a scientist specialising in immunology and a government advisers on vaccinations. In a year she has done two general talks on what it’s like to be a scientist, one specific talk on how vaccinations work to Year 9s (really useful as it was held a week before students were scheduled to receive vaccinations) and a lesson on how the immune system works with Year 12 Biology students. My school were also lucky enough to have Dr Cameron Webb speak to them about research on mosquitoes and mosquito-borne diseases. Cameron even brought in a range of dead mosquitoes for students to examine under  the microscope. It is a great example of how scientists can work with schools to provide learning opportunities for students that would otherwise be difficult to organise.

    Dr Melina explaining how the immune system works with Year 12 Biology students.

    Dr Melina explaining how the immune system works with Year 12 Biology students.

    Dr Cameron Webb sharing his work and life as a scientist with Year 9 students.

    Dr Cameron Webb sharing his work and life as a scientist with Year 9 students.

    Students examining mosquitoes under the microscope in a lesson with Dr Cameron Webb.

    Students examining mosquitoes under the microscope in a lesson with Dr Cameron Webb.

    While utilising social media and web conferencing tools are useful to connect students and scientists with ease, there is nothing like having a real scientist connect and work with students in the flesh. Since my school’s involvement with SMIS, our students are more aware of careers in science (as shown in our student evaluation surveys) with some students being inspired to work in the fields of our partner scientists. The SMIS program has done wonders in helping to lift the profile of science. It is vital that students can refer to real faces when they are talking about what scientists do and science as a career. It is also essential that students hear and see first-hand the diverse things that scientists do in their day-to-day jobs.

    If you’re in an Australian school, I highly recommend contacting CSIRO and being involved in their SMIS program.